Travelogue of three ex-teachers charting their epic journey through Asia in 2002/3
"This is the big one isn't it? You can't turn down the
opportunity to travel when two of your friends are up
for it too. But it's gone from a simple return-to-Bankok-via-Delhi
plan to a mindblowing thirteen country epic. Fantastic!"
"Main punjaban jutti hoon. Main apni desh ko jarahee hoon!
Mere sahalia ke sath bahut maza aayega!"
"This is the chance of a lifetime. I can't wait to get
my teeth into this adventure! Grrr..."
to our site! We are three intrepid teachers who have quit our
jobs, swapping classrooms for Cambodia, marking for Malaysia
and truculent teenagers for Thailand. From September (a wonderfully
fitting date for a teacher) we head for India, then onto
South-East Asia, Australasia and America. We hope to keep you
updated, entertained and who knows, even inspired. Click on
us when you have a spare minute and keep on top of what is likely
to be an unforgettable trip - for all of us!
Friday, June 27, 2003
Pari, Sarah and I have been home now for around a month. We had been in the USA a while, getting used to western ways and watching our last few dollars trickle through our fingers. But despite having a great time there, visiting Las Vegas and the Grand canyon, living it up in San Fransisco and enjoying the breathtaking scenery at Yosemite National Park, we knew that we were putting off the inevitable: returning home.
I think it would be fair to say that we are all feeling pretty down about being home. Reality ain't much fun. Why would we want to get a job when we've spent nine months pleasing ourselves? How can riding on the Underground in London compete with riding on the back of an elephant through a Thai jungle? What's so appetising about cheese sandwiches for lunch when we've been eating exotic, spicy food for nearly a year? You get the idea.
Nine months ago I thought going travelling was the bravest thing I could ever do. Now I think finding a place for myself back in Britain, with its grey skies and consumer culture, is going to be the hardest thing I have ever done. Wish me luck.
A MASSIVE THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO HAS READ THIS SITE AND GIVEN US SO MUCH ENCOURAGEMENT. AND GOD BLESS YOU, VIKKICAR - YOU'VE BEEN A STAR!
Ps: Is there a fellow blogger out there who knows if it's possible to record a website onto CD Rom or disk? I want to keep this for posterity...
Friday, May 09, 2003
New Zealand was like a holiday version of supermarket sweep: hire a car and speed from place to place, throwing fantastic scenery and hair-raising activities into the trolley of our memories.
Ouch, that's a terrible analogy! Anyway, it made for a frantic two weeks, but we came away feeling that we had seen most of the amazing treasures New Zealand has to offer, and most importantly, it left us wanting more.
Almost every car journey took us through spectacular scenery, so they were never a chore. But you really can't beat seeing your surroundings from the air. In Wanaka, Pari and I decided to go paragliding. It was my second time and Pari's first. We both loved the experience, despite the fact that we looked like giant ants with our harness on...
Something that really is mind-boggling about New Zealand is the extremes you can find in the two islands. In the south island we went hiking on Fox Glacier, complete with crampons and spikes. The photo below shows me walking through a crevasse. (Why am I still wearing that terrible hat?) We were also surrounded by majestic, snow-capped mountains (like Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, pictured below)...
...So there was ice and snow aplenty in the South Island, but volcanic and geothermal activity in the North. Below you can see a close up of the minerals that colour the steaming pools of Wai-O-Tapu:
Near to the end of our trip we went on a gruelling one-day hike (18 kms) across dormant volcanoes - called the Tongariro Crossing. It was a great (if utterly knackering!) day, and we made some friends along the way too:
These snaps represent just a taster of what we saw in New Zealand. We haven't mentioned jetboating through the Shotover Canyon in Queenstown or exploring the nation's big cities. We met countless really cool fellow-travellers, and we stayed in some utterly idyllic hostels. We had a great time in New Zealand, and can't wait to go back.
Sunday, April 27, 2003
Many apologies for our long absence! It seems once we hit the decadent West all our creative energies got chanelled into partying rather than writing. Still, we have the photos to prove it, and have finally got around to showing them to you...
We hung out in Sydney, New South Wales, for about a month, and had a great time. The best part was hooking up with two cool chicks from back home: Jo and Chris. They had been exploring Oz too, and managed to keep us entertained in Sydney, and up the coast in Byron Bay.
We couldn't believe how gorgeous that most photogenic of Australia's buildings is: the Opera House. It dominates the harbour, yet it actually seems a lot smaller in real life...
And here are the four of us, taking our first look at it...
While we were in Sydney we were also privileged to attend an anti-war rally in the city centre. We could not believe the numbers that turned out, and really enjoyed the atmosphere. I was also really excited to hear my hero John Pilger speak. It made us all feel like we had had our say; whatever turn events were to take, we could say we had stood up and denounced the war for the crime it was.
The other major highlight of our time in Sydney was Mardi Gras. We were glammed up and ready to go by 10 in the morning, and spent the day people-watching, eating and drinking, and generally enjoying the festivities. The parade was fantastic: colourful, noisy and of course, very rude! Our friends will get to see those pics - we'll give you this one in the mean time:
Apart from war protests and hob-nobbing with Craig Maclachlan in Kings Cross, we also managed to arrange an adventure up the coast. We hired what may well be the smallest camper van in the world and trundled up the coast to Byron Bay. I don't know whether it was the torrential rain that fell unceasingly for four days or Chris and Jo's singing ("If I 'ad a hammer...") that caused us all to go temporarily insane, but whatever it was, it passed, leaving only a bad case of claustrophobia and some accidentally dyed clothes as proof of the madness. The camper van, it should be noted, was the only one of us to emerge unscathed from the ordeal. (Seeing Paul Daniels and Debbie Magee in Byron Bay has damaged us for life.)
Our final trip was to the breathtaking Blue Mountains, a mere two hours' train ride from Sydney, but another world entirely. We spent three days looking out at truly spectacular views, clambering down vertical ladders and seeing waterfalls emerging from the mist. The Three Sisters rock formation was visible from almost everwhere we went.
All in all, we had a great time in Oz, spent way too much money and gained pounds from all the eating and drinking. We were really sad to say goodbye to Jo and Chris, but we couldn't spend too long feeling sad: New Zealand was yet to come...
Sunday, March 09, 2003
Poles Apart III: Vietnam
Vietnam provided a stark contrast to Laos. We had basked in warm Laos sunshine; Vietnam was cold, wet and grey. Laos people were friendly and honest; in Hanoi many people came across as glumly mercenary, almost hostile to western tourists. Laos was ridiculously cheap; Vietnam was expensive and the preferred currency was the US dollar.
Yet how long had I wanted to visit Vietnam? There was the incredible history of the place, which was both fascinating and appalling. And friends of mine had visited and loved it, saying the people were friendly and the countryside beautiful. They were right about the landscape. We weren't so enamoured of the people.
Trips to Halong Bay and the Perfume Pagoda revealed the areas' striking Karst limestone mountains, which were misty and magical and seemingly endless.There is a myth which explains the numerous peaks which fade eventually into the distance at Halong Bay: a dragon and her thousand babies swooped down to help the Vietnamese people defend the region from attackers. They landed on the water of the bay and created a myriad mountains, making it impossible for the enemy to navigate the sea. The attackers became hopelessly lost and were vanquished. As we chugged along on our boat and gazed out at this otherworldly landscape we could easily believe the story.
Similarly, the Perfume Pagoda, a mountainous region famous for its many temples, involved another memorable boat trip, this time up the Yen river, surrounded once again by the mountains - and a thousand pilgrims making their way to the temples to pray. Our creaking wooden boat was steered expertly by a Vietnamese Matt Damon lookalike, serious and intense, who got us safely to our destination despite several leaks! Once on land, we made our way to the temple with the countless Vietnamese there to pray for a prosperous new year. The temples were calm havens amid the choas outside, filled with the muttered prayers of the faithful, the air thick with incense and hope.
So if we loved the scenery so much, why didn't we enjoy Vietnam? It comes down to the contrast between the Laos and the Vietnamese people. In Hanoi, a beautiful, frustrating, culturally fascinating city, we felt like we had to be on our toes all the time. We experienced the two-tier pricing system (where tourists are charged triple the price for a bowl of noodles (or anything) paid by a Vietnamese person) on a number of occasions and felt insulted by it. Once, Pari and I tried to get a 'bia hoi', a fresh beer sold at stalls on the road in the evenings. When we asked the price the owner visibly paused, as if to ask herself "What shall I charge them?" She quoted us a price about triple the going rate, and we left, enraged by her cheek. The same happened when I ate at a street stall, and again when we tried to buy some souveneirs. We know as rich western tourists that we pay more for everything we buy, but in other countries there's a good-humoured haggling system and eventually a price is decided upon that both parties are happy with. In Vietnam there was little scope for haggling; people simply quoted exorbitant prices grumpily and seemed affronted by any attempt to haggle. I suppose we had got used to one way of doing things, and so Vietnam came as a bit of a culture shock.
Added to that, we got pretty sick of the crazy traffic 'system' in Hanoi. Crossing the road was a life-threatening exercise. Everybody travelled by scooter, and they made up their own rules. People would suddenly pull out or park in front of you, would jump lights routinely, and would honk peevishly at you if you had the nerve to try to cross at a zebra crossing. Walking on the pavement wasn't an option because those lunatics not out on their scooters had parked their bikes there! For the first couple of days this was charmingly eccentric. By the end of our two weeks in Hanoi I was ready to slash tyres!
Even leaving Vietnam left a bitter taste - we were checked in painfully slowly, had waited patiently in line for the overly bureaucratic customs officials to do their thing, only to get turned away at the last minute because we hadn't paid our US$16 departure tax - something nobody had bothered to tell us about! We were ten minutes away from missing our flight, and I can honestly say I've never been so pleased to see the smiling faces of the Singapore Airlines staff!
Still, all things considered, it made leaving South East Asia much easier for us, and I found myself looking forward to Sydney to a ridiculous degree. But both of us feel really sad to think that the Asian part of our travels are over. We both hope to go back before too long.
Check out our new photos of Laos (previous article), Vietnam (Perfume Pagoda) and the Sydney anti war march...Also, catch up with the latest from our Perth correspondent - hot off the press!!
Friday, February 28, 2003
Greetings from Down Under
G’day folks! Well, it’s been two months since I landed in Western Australia and I thought it was about time I updated people on my meanderings. I’ve lived in Perth before - 5 years ago - so being here is pretty much a home from home except it’s warmer, sunnier and much more laid back!
While the other hookahs have been continuing with their intrepid explorations, I’ve been chilling out and enjoying life here with my best friend Sam, her partner Brendon and resident DJ Dayle, who lives in the house too. January was a whirlwind of parties and gatherings, what with two birthdays, a house-warming and “Australia Day” all in need of celebration. Perth is well known for its sleepy, laid back feel but, luckily, it really comes alive during the summertime when pool parties and barbecues are de rigeur!
As well as catching up with friends and ex-colleagues from a few years ago, I’ve also met some pretty interesting and unconventional people out here, drawn from a range of backgrounds and countries to what is undoubtedly a very desirable lifestyle. I’m not sure if it’s the constant blue skies or the fact that most ‘living’ is done outdoors, but people generally seem more relaxed and healthy than back home. The food is fresh, tasty and heavily Asian - influenced, alternative medicines and naturopathy are very popular and people seem fairly health-conscious. At the moment many days are 40 degrees plus, and a kind of dry-roasting heat which is unlike anything I’ve experienced on my travels so far. I can’t get enough of it, but with skin cancer affecting 1 in 3 Western Australians, it’s safe to say no-one here really sunbathes.
I toyed with the idea of working when I first landed in Oz, but thankfully saw sense and decided on the extended holiday option instead! So far, my days revolve around the beach, ice-cream, reading, yoga and practising my two new obsessions - pool playing and DJ-ing (under Dayle’s supervision!) I’ve also been trying to soak up as much of the aussie ‘culture’ as possible and last Friday night found me at an Aussie Rules Football game at Subiaco Oval with 30,000 excited supporters. The two main Perth teams - the Fremantle Dockers and the West Coast Eagles - were playing each other so the atmosphere was electric! Unlike football games back home, supporters of both teams sit together throughout the stadium and the antagonism between them seems relatively good humoured. I secretly liked the look of the Dockers but as my companion was a hardened Eagles’ fan, I kept my preference to myself, ate my meat pie, drank my carlton mid-strength and cheered at the right times!
Getting out and about and exploring the state has also been fun; from the luscious, overgrown wine-making region of Margaret River in the south to a trip up north to the Pinnacles Desert made earlier this week. I drove up there with Tony, a cheeky chappie from Manchester who’s also on an extended break from the U.K. I haven’t driven much since passing my test a few years ago and have a slight phobia of turning corners. Luckily this was not a problem as the Great Western Highway is virtually one straight road for hours on end! During this time, the scenery was fascinating, changing from sparkling ocean views, to acres of bush-fire blackened land, to the reddest, most arid, desert terrain. The pinnacles themselves - craggy, limestone rocks protruding from the ground - were spectacular to behold and, as the sun was going down, somewhat eerie.
Well folks, that’s mostly my news for now. I haven’t been emailing much due to internet problems but can reassure everyone that I’m very much alive and kicking and enjoying life in W.A. See you later in the year if, and when, I manage to wrench myself away from here!
Sunday, February 16, 2003
Sydney Says No War!
I was planning to write the third installment of 'Poles Apart' before getting onto our adventures in Australia, but it feels important to tell you about yesterday.
Everyone knows that this weekend saw unprecidented worldwide protests about the proposed American war on Iraq. We too feel very strongly that this war is wrong, so we were delighted that we could take part in the Sydney march. It was amazing - undoubtedly the best rally I've ever attended. Newspapers here are saying that there were 250 000 protesters on this 'Walk Against the War'- it was nearer half a million. The meeting point was Hyde Park, where there were speeches at the beginning and end of the march. We missed the speeches at the beginning, partly due to our perpetual tardiness and partly because the crowd was so big it took us twenty minutes to squeeze our way to the front where the speakers were! Not to worry, we caught the speeches at the end. Why? We never left the park. Why? The crowd was so big the whole city was at a standstill and lots of us simply couldn't join the march - there was no room to move!
For me the atmosphere was better than any protest I'd been to previously, with Aussie humour keeping the proceedings from being po-faced. Some of our favourite banners were: 'That Bush Needs A Good Prune', and 'We Can Do Without Another Bush Fire'. There were people on stilts, women carrying huge effigies of George Bush with various scathing comments pinned onto them (though sadly no burnings), babes in arms, elderly CND veterans and ordinary Sydneysiders out to make their voices heard. After the speeches the crowd participated in a giant sit-down, during which the chant went up: No War! The strength of feeling was unmistakable, inspirational and at times highly moving.
For me personally, the highlight was hearing my hero John Pilger speak, but there were other great speakers too. Here are two facts I gleaned during the event which I thought I'd share with you:
1. John Howard (Australian Prime Minister) has sent 2000 troops to the Gulf - contravening the Australian constitution's rules on defence;
2. Over 40% of the Iraqi population are children under fifteen years of age.
This is an American attack on a nation of children for the control of Iraq's oilfields. Tony Blair and John Howard are Bush's flunkies. Saddam Hussain can be contained, as he has been for the last ten years. War is not necessary, neither is it morally justifiable. We'd be interested to hear your comments on this issue, and any descriptions of marches you attended in your part of the world, so please give us a shout!
No war on Iraq!
Deb and Pari
Friday, February 14, 2003
Poles Apart II
As promised, ten reasons to visit Laos:
1. Endless opportunities to get the much sought-after 'monks holding umbrellas' shot in Luang Prabang;
2. Visiting the gorgeous waterfall near the town and diving into the clear, aquamarine pools at its base;
3. A traditional Laos herbal sauna at the Red Cross, Luang Prabang;
4. The spectacular, stomach churning journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng through karst limestone mountain ranges;
5. The laid-back traveller's hang-out Vang Vieng;
6. 'Tubing' the river in Vang Vieng: floating idly along on a giant inner tube, stopping only for a cold beer or passing water buffalo;
7. Exploring the caves around Vang Vieng by bike;
8. Sunset over the Mekong, Vientienne;
9. Being greeted with a big smile and the friendly salutation 'sabaidee' by everyone you meet, whether you're going to buy something or not;
10. Beerlao. Definitely the best lager in the world!
Tuesday, February 11, 2003
Poles Apart I
Laos is LOVELY! There's no other word for it. (Actually, that's not strictly true; you could call it many other things, such as 'rugged' or 'exotic', but I'm trying to write more concisely, with shorter and less complicated sentences, so I won't.)
Later I'll save even more time by simply listing ten things we loved about Laos. But I think you should know about the boat journey we took into Laos. It was quite an experience.
Before I begin, here are the basic facts. To cross into Laos from Thailand one must take a cargo boat from the border town of Huay Xai in the far north of the country down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang, Laos' second city after capital Vientienne. The journey takes two days (downstream - the journey takes longer against the current), with an overnight stop at a village called Pak Beng.
I had heard about this famed journey some time ago, soon after we booked our tickets and started reading the Rough Guide to South East Asia in preparation for our trip. I remember reading the immortal line, "a once-in-a-lifetime-experience" in reference to the boat trip. It sounded wonderful: I visualised a rustic wooden boat, quite small in size with only me, Pari and a few friendly Laos farmers taking their wares downriver to Luang Prabang. I would sit in a picturesque fashion on the hull of the boat, trailing my fingers dreamily in the water, gazing out at the surrounding hills and farmland, waving back at beautiful Laos children standing on the shore and finally, after a breathtaking sunset over the Mekong, docking at a sweet little village for the overnight stay. Next morning, refreshed and eager, we'd board the boat again and set off for the final leg of our journey to Louang Prabang.
Those of you who can spot such blatant hyperbole will have already sensed the coming ironic twist. The boat journey we experienced bore little relation to the soft-focus idyll described above. I think the fact that before I even got to the Laos side of the river I nearly fell into the water with my rucksack on my back was sufficient forewarning of the dangers to come.
Border control in Laos was a characteristically laid-back affair. Sleepy officials sat in their booth stamping the passports of those of us who chose to line up; it would have been very easy to bypass the customs office altogether and simply wander blithely into Laos. Still, being teachers with a need for order and paperwork, we queued up and got yet another stamp in our already spectacularly endowed passports. That done, we waited to be transported to the long-anticipated cargo boat.
Was it the prospect of eight hours aboard what was essentially a slave ship, crammed with what seemed like two thousand likeminded tourists (actually about eighty - still...) with about one square inch of hard bench each that troubled me most, or the fact that all our rucksacks had been piled unprotected by tarpaulin on the tin roof of the boat, prey to any passing rainstorms or exceptionally hungry eagles? The rucksacks were not fastened down either, so I was hoping there wouldn't be any sharp curves in the river...
We were lucky. We had got there early and snuggled onto a raised platform at one end of the craft which in any other situation would have been a really nice chill-out deck on which to drink, smoke, chat and watch the world go by. As it was, we clung to our patches of space fiercely, watching in horror as more and more bewildered travellers appeared, blinking uncomprehendingly, before being led dazed onto the already bulging boat.
Only once a second boat was enlisted (with its full and fair complement of about eight tourists and a couple of Laos) to cope with the overspill did we leave.
Still, the alternative to this torture was a 'speedboat' to Luang Prabang. The journey only takes eight hours. But don't think sexy, swanky fibreglass machines with on board kitchenettes and bunks. Think tiny wooden longtails with huge motors strapped onto the back and nowhere to sit, just space to crouch in terror as you roar deafeningly and dangerously down the Mekong, liable to be overturned by hidden rocks. Not really an option then.
In true Brit spirit, though, we made the most of our circumstances, befriending the people around us, playing cards, employing our blackest humour and getting in some serious reading time. It was nice, until the reality of our night at the midway point village of Pak Peng began to make itself felt. Pak Beng is a tiny village in the back of beyond in northern Laos. It is not equipped to cope with an influx of what may have been one hundred and fifty tourists (more, if a boat going in the opposite direction had stopped there too). Drastic measures would be needed to ensure a place to sleep that night. Suddenly I was looking at my new friends not with the jovial eye of a comrade-in-arms, but as competition that needed to be outwitted. Truly, it was a horrible, anxious feeling, and you could see people eyeing each other nervously as the realisation sank in. Some time before this Pari and I had agreed on a ruse we had used before, one which virtually assured us a room. She would get off the boat first, run to the nearest guesthouse to secure a room, and I would wait behind to get the bags. (I think I had the easiest part of the plan, but Pari is so good at running around and finding suitable accommodation...)
The plan worked: we had a room and thus a place to rest our weary heads. Other people were not so lucky. Five people didn't find a room at all and actually had to sleep on the boat. And my god, it was cold! Still, at least the next morning they had the pick of the seats on the boat.
The following day was more of the same, with the added excitement of one person's rucksack falling into the river as it was being 'loaded' (read 'thrown') onto the boat: something we had all secretly dreaded happening. Poor guy. Still, to be fair, the Laos crew were mortified that it had happened.
Approaching Luang Prabang was wonderful. The last hour on the boat didn't drag at all. On the contrary, the scenery, already stunning, was gilded by the glow of a Laos sunset, the swirling eddies of the Mekong continued to mesmerise me (there were actually whirlpools in this mighty river!) and the prospect of reaching Luang Prabang made everyone on board feel ridiculously cheerful.
Finally we reached our destination. Stiff-legged we stood and took in our first glimpse of the gorgeous Luang Prabang.
And then, of course, the fight for rooms started again...
To Be Continued...
(By the way, I know I failed completely with the short, uncomplicated sentences thing.)
Sunday, February 02, 2003
From Bangkok With Love...
Pari had planned this day for months. She could almost taste the sweet flavour of website domination. "One hookah down, one to go," thought Pari as she looked out of the Skytrain Metro window to the teeming streets of Bangkok below. It was the perfect scene for the crime: crowded streets, traffic fumes and a plethora of temples made this the ideal place to "lose" Deborah.
The first attempt was made at Wat Phra Kaew, the monastery in the Royal Palace grounds. While Deb was blinded by the golden glare of the dazzling Phra Si Ratana Chedi holding the Buddha's breastbone, Pari ducked into the bot (main sanctuary) to gather her weapons. The plan: suffocation by incense fumes. Within the bot stood Thailand's most sacred statue, the Emerald Buddha. Though only sixty centimetres in height, the beauteous jadeite statue, dressed in its cold season gold shawl, distracted Pari long enough for Deb to reappear. Even her attempts to blend in with the 112 golden birdmen (garudas) did not fool her canny ginger haired companion long.
Likewise Wat Po, Bangkok's oldest temple, dating back to the 17th Century, offered Pari no opportunity to carry out her dastardly deeds. The forty metre reclining bronze Buddha with its peaceful, dreamy smile was awesome in size and inspired both the evil schemer and her naive victim to purchase and write their names upon two new tiles for the Wat's roof. And Buddha smiled down his approval.
Next stop, the ugly tourist ghetto of Khao San Road: the obvious stage for this macabre play. Amongst the freshly tie-dyed t-shirts and braided heads of her fellow travellers Pari plotted her next move. She felt powerful here, for what could she not achieve with the familiar strains of 'No Woman, No Cry' blaring out of every cybercafe? How easy it would be to send Deborah into the zombie world of the silver screen, never to emerge. If she enticed her to join the hordes of mind numbed "travellers" sitting in front of the latest Hollywood pirates, 'High Class Hookahs' could be hers forever! Mwahahaha! But truth be told, even Pari could not bear to spend another minute in this terrifying place and they leapt aboard the first bus that came trundling by.
She stared out at the city that had mesmerised her this past week: the wonderful medley that was Bangkok, with its gleaming towers of commercialism standing side by side with the ancient temples; the pungent spices of Pahurat's little India mixing with the sweet scent of carnations in Chinatown...and Pari began to repent. How could she contemplate these actions in such a beautiful and spirited city? But wait! There was one place...
A few short hours later Deborah found herself walking through the blinding, neon-lit streets of PATPONG! Bangkok's red light district seemed to be a suitably sleazy backdrop for Pari's plot. She imagined lethal strip shows involving fast flying ping pong balls and grinned wickedly. Unfortunately Deb seemed more taken with the steaming pots of sticky rice than the steamy shows inside the Pink Panther!
Finally, as Pari sat back on her luxurious berth on the 19.42 to Chiang Mai, she bid a sad farewell to the enchanting city of contrasts and muttered, "I'll get you yet Gadget."
Friday, January 10, 2003
Thailand has been a blast, and the result has been a temporary writer's block. Here we are again, though, ready to fill you in on our adventures...
We had all been looking forward to Thailand, seeing it as an opportunity to really relax and enjoy ourselves. It has fulfilled all (well, most) of our expectations so far. Our first port of call was Krabi, a province in the South west of Thailand with a capital of the same name. Having arrived there after an epic journey from Georgetown, we headed to the tropical island idyll of Koh Phi Phi. We could rhapsodize about the island's beautiful white-sand beaches, it's seductively clear, warm waters and its laid-back ambience, but if we did we'd probably lose any readers currently shivering in sub-zero temperatures at home. Suffice to say, we loved the days we spent there, realising that this was the lifestyle we had fantasised about back in London, after a hard day working with truculent teenagers. One highlight of Phi Phi was the snorkeling and kayaking trip we had around the island. It was a new experience for me and after initial tussles with the mask, snorkel and flippers (resulting in mouthfuls of sea water), I relished the opportunity of seeing the coral reefs and their inhabitants. (Oddly, Chris Evans and the lovely Billie Piper were there, if you were wondering where they had got to...)
Paradise doesn't come cheap, though, and after a few days we headed back to Krabi, to make the wonderful K Guesthouse our home for the next two weeks. It charmed us with its wooden interior, eccentric management and eclectic clientele. The K was run by two warm and humorous ladies and their crazy sidekick, who had a voice like Minnie Mouse and a penchant for practical jokes. He regularly hid our keys, cut off our electricity and lay in wait for us as we stumbled back after dark. On each occasion, on seeing our perturbation, he would skip around, clapping his hands and giggling with undisguised glee. We always forgave him.
His female bosses, on the other hand, treated us like old friends, consoling us over leg-waxing mishaps, helping to organise our trips around the province, and when we left, running out to join us in a photo and wave us off.
The other good thing about the K was the people we met there. Max was a guy we had met originally on the mammoth bus journey up from Malaysia. He was a fresh-faced, intelligent and good-humoured Brazilian travelling around South-East Asia for a few months. He introduced us to the culinary delights of the night market in Krabi, where we would sit over our 50p dinners putting the world to rights. He also introduced us to the world of rock climbing (Krabi being a popular spot for rock climbers, what with it's towering limestone cliffs). He talked us through the highs and lows of the sport (have you ever heard of a 'shit tube'? Neither had we, but we won't go into the details here...) and even showed us a few moves. He turned out to be a fun companion, joining us for a kayaking through canyons, cocktails and Christmas day. He was even brave enough to accompany Sarah on a Thai cookery course. (For anyone who knows Sarah's predilection for Pot Noodles and pickled onion Monster Munch, this will come as a real revelation!)
As a total contrast to the mild-mannered Max, we also met Gene, a Czech-born ship's captain living in California. He was the archetypal sailor: macho, with craggy good looks, a man of few words and happy with his own company. When questioned he showed himself to have a pragmatic, slightly cynical world view. But he was good company too, telling us about the life of a ship's captain and the moneyed set who own and race yachts. He joined us on our Christmas eve celebrations and, predictably, had the best staying-power where the Mai Tais were concerned.
The rest of our time in Krabi we divided between beaches. There were plenty in the area to choose from, all boasting the same white sand and clear emerald water. Travel to and from these beaches, however, could be fraught with unexpected dangers. To get to them it was necessary to take a longtail boat - a small but sturdy wooden boat able to carry about ten people. In taking one of these boats one became prey to a baffling and infuriating system run by what we dubbed The Boat Mafia. The process consisted of the following stages:
1. A man approaches you as you walk down any given side street in Krabi and asks, "Where are you going?", to which you reply (if you are new to the game, or a masochist), "I'm going to Rai Ley Beach today." Suddenly you become the property of that particular scout, who then ushers you to his boat. (Note: he is not the driver (skipper?) of the boat: he just recruits passengers for it.)
2. You wait expectantly in said boat, having been told it will leave in five minutes, after one or two extra passengers have been found. Ten minutes later, and with no sign of either the scout or more passengers, you look around only to see various other boats containing two or three passengers, all waiting for their boats to be filled... And then it dawns on you. Why are we all sitting in different boats, waiting for more passengers, when together we could fill a longtail and set off? Answer: it's the Boat Mafia's crazy system at work.
One day we decided to take matters into our own hands, and it was then we witnessed the might of the Boat Mafia. We joined up with a similarly frustrated group of Canadians waiting to go to the same beach as us. The problem was that we 'belonged' to a different scout. Nevertheless, in the spirit of rebellion, we jumped aboard one boat and demanded to be taken to our destination. Our driver/skipper/captain, in a moment of weakness agreed.
It was then all hell broke loose.
On seeing that we had got into the 'wrong' boat, our scout grabbed the little boatman by the scruff of his neck, screamed abuse in his face, and generally roughed him up. He had broken the Boat Mafia's Code of Conduct, and for that he would pay dearly. To his credit, our man still took us to Rai Ley beach, but he was visibly shaken; as were we, imagining punishments like knee-cappings and castration.
We got wise after that incident, sauntering casually past every scout that approached us, denying that we had any interest in boats or beaches until we were actually on the jetty. Then we would fling ourselves impetuously into the nearest, fullest boat, confounding the Boat Mafia and scoring a little victory for ourselves and all travellers.
Well, after Krabi there was a national park (the less said about the leeches and other creepy-crawlies the better), and then there was a woeful, wet new year in Koh Pha Ngan (which, again, we'll pass over quickly). And so we arrive (and not before time) at our big piece of news: after four months of travelling as a trio, Sarah has flown to Perth in Australia, leaving Pari and Deb to continue their Asian adventures together. With a bit of luck, in the coming months, we'll have dispatches from our Australian correspondent, as well as tales from Thailand and elsewhere...
Thursday, December 19, 2002
Season's Greetings to all our friends and family members: wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a fantastic New Year! See you sometime in 2003...
Saturday, December 14, 2002
Without really knowing how, we found ourselves in Malaysia - in Kuala Lumpur to be precise. I wasn't sure what to expect. From reading in the guidebook (aeons ago) that the town was cosmopolitan and modern, I guess I had had high hopes. However, after the glitz and glamour of Singapore, KL didn't really match up. It was trying hard to be like it's suave neighbour - it did have the high rise towers and big shopping centres - but it was essentially a more down-at-heel version, and we found it hot, noisy and dirty.
The dirty part was a real eye-opener. Obviously, compared with squeaky-clean Singapore, even Buckingham Palace would seem a tad run down. But KL was actually filthy. We saw countless rats scurrying around between hawker food stalls, had our first encounter with bed bugs in the hostel in which we were staying (yuk - don't go there - literally!) and had to squash a cockroach in our second, supposedly more upmarket, hotel. It sounds unlikely because of the usual propaganda one hears about India, but the subcontinent was a far cleaner, more hygenic place. In the twelve weeks we were there, I only saw one cockroach and I didn't see any rats. India 1: Malaysia 0.
True, the twin Petronas towers are an impressive sight (although memories of September 11th kept me from going up them!) And to be fair, the Islamic Arts Museum there was stunningly designed and full of beautiful exhibits. Even so, within two days we were heading off upcountry to Penang.
On the whole, I liked Georgetown. There was an interesting mix of cultures , with a big Chinese population seeming to dominate in what is otherwise, of course, a Muslim state. We hung around the backpacker centre of Lebuh Chulia, ate Nasi Goreng (fried rice), drank freshly squeezed orange juice and availed ourselves of the ubiquitous free video showings every night. (I saw the recent film 'The Bourne Identity' there. The clue that it was a pirated copy was when at one point, on the DVD, I saw a silhouette of a member of the cinema audience get up and walk out ! Oh, the miracle of camcorders!)
It so happened that my birthday was fast approaching, and being the high class hookahs we decided to celebrate it in style. We arranged to fly to the nearby island of Langkawi to spend a couple of days pampering ourselves (oh yes, we really act like backpacker's don't we? In fairness, it only cost 15 quid to fly one way, but still...). Langkawi was a beautiful, tropical island, and the place we stayed was the most sumptuous resort I've ever seen. Our rooms were palatial, had enormous white marble bathrooms (with telephone by the loo) and we even had our own private beach! I spent my birthday swimming in the warm sea, opening presents on the king-size bed, and having dinner in a restaurant on stilts over the sea!
The day we were leaving, we were brought down to earth with a bump, however. The hotel receptionist had added a surcharge onto our bill which we had known nothing about. Assuming that they would be able to rectify it quickly, we told them that as we hadn't been told of this charge beforehand, we weren't prepared to pay it. The staff's response? "I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do. You have to pay it." Becoming simultaneously more and more incredulous and irate, we got to within one hour of our flight leaving before the manager turned up to solve the problem. In that time the receptionist (an insolent girl of about 17, and someone I could easily imagine sitting behind a desk at school chewing gum noisily and tutting every time she was asked to do something) had threatened to take the money from my visa card by force, as she "had the number written down already." It was by far the worst customer service we had ever come across, and beside poisoning our last day at the resort and nearly causing us to miss our flight to Georgetown, we were forced to use our strictest teacher voices for the first time in months. (In India the customer service was fantastic: India 2: Malaysia 0)
The plan had been to go direct from Langkawi to Thailand, but that was not to be. Pari and I had forgotten to pick up our passports from a Georgetown travel agent, and we were forced to go back and languish in Penang for two more days. We were, for the first time, painfuly short of money, and had to resort to drastic measures to make the money last such as eating simple food , not having a beer, and using a communal shower in our guesthouse. Hard times indeed.
At five a.m on a sunday morning, though, we were getting into a cramped minibus and heading to Thailand. White sand beaches and emerald seas were calling us...
Petronas Towers, KL
Birthday Frolics, Langkawi
Tuesday, December 03, 2002
Singapore Swings, or Culture Shock In Consumer Heaven
Deb Supping a Sing Sling
On a grey and humid Wednesday morning the Hookahs swung into Singapore. Blinking and bewildered, they emerged into the bright spaceship that is Singapore airport. The immaculate toilets, automatic doors and shower rooms were almost more than the three ladies could take in.
"Oh my God, check out these darling digital cameras," gushed Pari breathlessly as she rushed into the nearest duty-free shop.
"I could live here," Deb announced flatly as she gazed around her, hands on hips.
Sarah remained silent, however, seemingly mesmerised by the lights and the cheery muzak.
Without apparently moving their legs, the Hookahs had glided with their Louis Vuitton backpacks onto Singapore's MRT system, and found themselves heading into town. They sat, eyes like saucers, trying to take in the view. Women with kitten heels whispered into hands-free cellular phones; all around were multicoloured condos that stood out against the grey sky, uniform and immaculate; and strangest of all was the silence. Nobody spoke to anybody.
"This place is like 'Village of the Damned'," thought Deb.
She had just glanced over at Pari and noticed that she was gripping her seat nervously, swaying and muttering, "Where are all the cows?"
Sarah too was feeling disconcerted, particularly when the three stumbled unsuspectingly upon Orchard Road - Singapore's answer to Oxford Street, Fifth Avenue and the Champs Elysees, all rolled into one. Squinting up at the phenomenal array of garish baubles, fairy lights and inflatable Santas, Sarah could only exclaim: "Jesus, where the hell did all these Christmas trees come from?"
Being in India for two months had thankfully spared the Hookahs of the annual festive onslaught - until now.
Deb was not to be wrong-footed for long, however. Visa card in hand she sprang into the nearest shopping mall, gleefully eyeing the shimmering shelves of electrical goods. Like the proverbial startled bunnies, Pari and Sarah followed suit, nervously fingering Fuji cameras and trousers from Miss Selfridge.
Over their Singapore Slings that evening, the Hookahs surveyed their loot and at last began to relax. After all, they were sitting in the coolest bar on Emerald Hill listening to Motown and living it up in consumer heaven. Reclining on the cushions opposite were five chic Singaporeans, downing their Chardonnay and screeching raucously as they spilled their secrets. Not to be outdone, the ladies ordered another Sing Sling, sat back and settled into the party vibe.
Next evening the Hookahs had a date with a trader. Gugs was a successful young banker, recently moved to Singapore and willing to show them around. After drinks at the Fullerton Hotel, and a quick stop off at a YSL launch party, the four took a taxi to the top seafood joint in town. There they tantalised their tastebuds with a staggering selection of Singapore's finest foods. They sampled fresh crab, shrimps, beef and chicken dishes, all washed down with a glass of ice cold Tiger beer. As a soundtrack to the evening, the heavens opened and unleashed a violent thunderstorm.
It certainly was a memorable week.
By Deb (on the eve of her birthday) and Sarah. (Pari has no recollection of these events due to Post Traumatic Shopping Syndrome.)
Thursday, November 28, 2002
A Farewell to India
Today it finally hit me: I'm not in India anymore and I miss it. It's taken me about ten frenetic days to comes to terms with this monumental change. And what finally triggered my tearful realisation? Listening to Bollywood songs on my minidisc.
I wanted to write about the highlights of my trip to India first. Having spent nearly three months on the subcontinent, having travelled from the Himalayas in the north to the very tip of India in the south, it's really difficult to decide what was best. Every state we visited had its golden moments. But certainly I'd choose the vibrant colours and shimmering desert heat of Rajasthan as a real favourite. I loved the Moghul and Rajput architecture: the austere forts and sumptuous, sexy palaces. I loved the sight of elephants and camels strolling down the streets - surely these things are quintessential aspects of India.
Another really significant trip was the bumpy bus ride from Trivandrum in Kerala to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu - the tip of India. Here three oceans converge (The Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal), and as you'd expect, the sea there seemed to boil, as if each ocean were vying for supremacy. I stood on that tiny patch of shingle beach, the wind whipping ferociously around me, and tried to take in the fact that we had travelled the length of India. I had a real feeling of accomplishment at that moment because when I started this journey I didn't believe I could make it all that way.
Other highlights generally revolve around food, beaches (preferably the two together ) and car rides across various states. I'm aware that I'm only hinting at small parts of my experience.
So as I was listening to songs from Lagaan today, it really sank in how much I miss the place; not just the big, exciting bits but the everyday things that make India unmistakably India. I miss its all-out assault on the senses: the smell of incense which pervades everything, making even the streets smell inviting; I miss the music - Bollywood hits pumping out of every shop and Tamil songs playing on the buses in the south. (Indian music is Indian - none of the sanitised soft-rock cover versions of western songs I've been hearing here in South East Asia.) And boy, do I miss Indian food! From eating rich Punjabi food in the north to eating south Indian Thalis with my fingers; everything I ate I loved.
Most of all, I miss the people. I feel ashamed to admit how nervous I was at the beginning of being ripped off or, even worse, groped by predatory men. Everyone (even Indians, I hasten to add!) warns you to beware. I can honestly say that my experience of people in India, be it in the north or south, is overwhelmingly positive. People want to help you. They are generous with their time and with their resources. They want to tell you about the places of interest in their area. People want you to enjoy the food they serve and are distressed if you seem unhappy about any aspect of your time in their town. They may try to charge you a few extra rupees, but are good-humoured when you bargain hard. Most of all, they seem to love life and appear so much happier than us dour Brits.
India welcomed me with open arms. I have to go back.
Kanyakumari - Tip of India